I learned a new word the other day—informatics. It’s an academic suffix, you can attach it to any discipline, like economics, and it allows the discourse and inquiry to drift into other fields.
James Burke called this the Knowledge Web.
This is a very positive development in our concepts of knowledge, and could help to solve the economic problems the world now faces. Economics alone will not help, economists constrained by their discipline may not offer helpful insight.
Economics combined with history—maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Let’s look at the three great crises in the history of industrial capitalism. The first, the industrial revolution itself, set off an ecological crisis in England the likes of which we haven’t seen. The city was so filthly, so polluted, with both industrial and human waste that there wasn’t any potable water. There was no concept of sanitation, or what is sanitary, modern medicine didn’t exist—and tens of thousands of people were dying of cholera, the cholera would sweep over London like a change of a season. It was so bad that both Karl Marx and the English Parliament expected a revolution if conditions did not change.
The problem was solved, not by consulting the works of Adam Smith, but by addressing the problem as a scientific one. A massive sewer system was built, along with water purification plants. The sewer system required housing to be rebuilt so that it would connect to the system. Other advances in the field of medicine, such as the discovery of germs also led to great technological advances. And the revolutionary conditions dissipated.
The next crisis was the Great Depression. Again, the economists, in this case the Keynesians had their policy, but it did not generate a solution. WWII provided the solution. That is, WWII fought not as a moral war but as a scientific, technological battle. The Germans were at least a generation ahead of America, scientifically speaking. The US put forth a massive scientific and technological effort to catch up, and eventually overwhelmed the German war machine. After the war, this model continued with the Cold War and the Space Race.
But this model ended in the 70s and 80s, with the creation of OPEC and the inability of Detroit to keep up with Japan. There were also cuts in the defense budget, or at least a slowing down of development. Again, we have the economists implementing policy, this time the Chicago School. But the problems were not solved until Silicon valley reinvented the scientific and technological infrastructure of the US. Once more the economic problems were solved when converted to scientific challenges.
Which brings us to the present—and the need to meet the present scientific and technological challenges that we face. Until we address the issues, in a focused way, of energy and emissions, the economic problems will remain.